Review: The Waitresses Beyond ‘Christmas Wrapping’

The Waitresses, Just Desserts compilationOmnivore Recordings

You’ve no doubt heard it a dozen times since Black Friday: a bouncy, sax-inflected new wave tune with the insistently catchy chorus “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas/But I think I’ll miss this one this year.” One of the few holiday standards to come out of the 1980s, The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping” is a smart, funny and ultimately quite sweet bit of urban cynicism that’s a much needed corrective to the saccharine nature of most holiday music. But in the decades since its first release in 1981, it’s increasingly overshadowed the rest of this underappreciated band’s work. Just Desserts: The Complete Waitresses (Omnivore Records) is a long-overdue set that finally addresses that imbalance.

The core of The Waitresses was songwriter Chris Butler, whose lyrics addressed modern angst and alienation with more humor and heart than most of his post-punk brethren, and singer Patty Donohue. Donohue’s persona, shaped in part by Butler’s songs, was something new for women in rock: as tough as Patti Smith or her fellow northern Ohio native Chrissie Hynde but with an endearing edge of self-conscious vulnerability and an Everywoman vibe, both of which are on full display on the diary-like verses of “Christmas Wrapping.” (Butler says in this collection’s illuminating liner notes that he imagined Donohue’s persona as the listener’s cool big sister.) Donohue could certainly play the new wave sex kitten: see the wonderfully bitchy/flirty “I Know What Boys Like,” the single The Waitresses were best known for before the ascendance of “Christmas Wrapping.” But songs like the post-breakup character study “No Guilt” and the sneakily uplifting “Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?,” a self-empowerment anthem disguised as a snarky pop song, are emotionally richer, funnier and more memorably vivid than most of what was going on in the early 1980s.

As a band, The Waitresses had chops as well. Started in Butler and Donohue’s native Akron but finally assembled after they moved to New York, the group included drummer Billy Ficca (formerly of punk icons Television) and featured the skronking, free jazz-influenced saxophone of Mars Williams, who had studied under experimental music legend Anthony Braxton. The addition of bassist Tracy Wormworth just after the recording of their 1982 debut Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful? (she appears in the band photo on the back cover, but didn’t actually play on the album) added a more dancefloor-friendly edge to the follow-up Bruiseology that suggested The Waitresses could adapt with the times as the ’80s progressed. But as Butler mentions in the compilation’s liner notes, Bruiseology was a darker and more cynical album than its predecessor that had the bad fortune to be released in the summer of 1983, a pop culture moment where the bright-and-shiny likes of Kajagoogoo’s “Too Shy” were more in keeping with the Zeitgeist.

Unfortunately, Bruiseology was clearly recorded by a band in the process of breaking up: Wormworth sings the album’s most dance-oriented song, “Spin,” and the instrumental “Pleasure” sounds like it had lyrics that were never recorded. The band fell apart amidst rumors of substance abuse problems, and after an abortive attempt to start over with singer Holly Beth Vincent (late of Holly and the Italians, whose “Tell That Girl To Shut Up” is an oft-covered power pop fave), the Waitresses were finished by 1984. Sadly, they were never able to hit the 1980s reunion circuit to capitalize on the slow-rising success of “Christmas Wrapping”: Patty Donohue died of lung cancer in 1996. After 25 years’ worth of half-assed CD compilations (Bruiseology and the 1982 EP I Could Rule The World If I Could Only Get The Parts had never been reissued in full), Just Desserts: The Complete Waitresses finally lays out everything that made The Waitresses one of the great lost bands of their time. Now that “Christmas Wrapping” season is coming to an end, dive in and discover what else they could do.